Bookmark and Share September 24, 2010 - Dave Mulder

Overfishing: The rise of farmed fish and Frankenfish

The world has a vast appetite for seafood: We love it too much.

Just look at sushi. In the last few years, the number of sushi restaurants around my alma mater (Michigan State University) has jumped to 10, all within walking distance of campus.

The incredible demand for sushi and other seafood has put a lot of strain of the planet’s natural fish stocks. We are simply overfishing our oceans. Add in the occasional man-made disaster and prolific species like the Atlantic bluefin have gone from plentiful to endangered.

Prices have risen, and will continue to rise.

Farm fisheries have emerged to meet demand. These farms raise fish (usually salmon) in a small, contained environment away from predators. Some of these farms feed corn (yes, seriously) to their fish; others bring in smaller fish as feed.

Farmed salmon are a classic case. For each pound it weighs, the fish consumed up to five pounds of smaller “forage fish’’ caught around the world such as anchovies, sardines and herring, according to Stanford University researcher Rosamond Naylor, lead author of a 2009 aquaculture report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The reports says those forage fisheries “are either fully exploited or are in the process of recovering from overexploitation.’’

That amplifies a 2008 report by Canadian and German scientists in Annual Reviews in Environment and Resources that said forage fish “play a crucial role in marine ecosystems,’’ transferring energy from plankton to larger fish and marine mammals. The recent International Penguin Conference in Boston reported that 10 of 18 species of penguins were in decline, with the African penguin on an extinction track. A key reason is the commercial fishing of anchovies and sardines, which are penguin food.

That’s right: Depleted wild salmon stocks spawned salmon farms which in turn force anchovies and sardines to be overfished so that the farm salmon have something to snack on.

Looks like we’ll soon be feeding our salmon more corn. Or we’ll be using genetically engineered salmon.

The GM salmon grows twice as fast as its wild relative. Its genes have been artificially modified to include DNA from the Pacific Chinook and from an eel-like species so that the resulting fish keeps growing all year long.

The US Food and Drug Administration is currently evaluating the safety of this GM fish for public consumption. Early tests seem to indicate that there are no detrimental health impacts. We’re probably going to see this in grocery stores quite soon.

One thing that remains to be seen is if the GM salmon will need to be artificially colored like its farmed salmon brothers of today. (Good sushi places use real salmon.)

My general take on Frankenfish is this: It’s going to be very similar to giant pork and dairy operations. They’ll reduce the price of fish, but with a societal cost tradeoff.

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